Liberal leader Justin Trudeau grabbed headlines Wednesday morning when he announced his decision to remove Liberal Senators from his party’s caucus. Now, 32 “former” Liberal Senators will sit as Independents – that is, if we don’t see a few resignations in response to this announcement.
Mr. Trudeau’s justification for this bold course of action is that a partisan Senate serves to enhance the powers of an already-too-powerful prime minister. He has a point. Currently, the Senate – like the House of Commons – is dominated by Conservatives. If Senators are going to toe the party line just like MPs do, then the Senate ends up looking and acting a little too much like the House does. Instead of supplying an independent check on the prime minister’s power, the Conservative-heavy Senate actually fortifies the prime minister’s immunity from real accountability.
Mr. Trudeau rightly identifies this as a problem. His solution is to take political parties out of the Senate so that Senators are free from the clutches of their leaders in the House and can exercise their right – and responsibility – to vote independently. Of course, Mr. Trudeau can go only so far: He can change the membership of his caucus, but he cannot force the Conservatives to do the same. The Conservatives have already announced that they won’t be following suit, so both Houses will continue to be made up mostly of Conservatives – at least for the time being.
One of the most striking ironies of this announcement is this: While Mr. Trudeau’s decision is meant to curb the power of the Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau himself has never seemed so “powerful.” By his own account, he told Senators of his decision just this Wednesday morning, immediately before he told MPs and the rest of us. There was no prior consultation with Senators, and so no warning of the bomb he was about to drop. Mr. Trudeau did this because he can. He’s the leader. But this large and in-charge style of “leadership” is more commonly associated with Stephen Harper.
This morning’s events speak to the logic of the private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong last fall. Mr. Chong’s Reform Act would make it so that an individual could be removed from caucus only if a majority of caucus members support the expulsion in a secret ballot. This is to remove the power of the leader to kick people out of caucus unilaterally. Notably, Mr. Chong’s bill defines “caucus” to include only those members who sit in the House of Commons so, even if Mr. Chong’s bill were law right now, it would not have stopped Mr. Trudeau from doing exactly what he did in exactly the way that he did it.
That being said, the Liberal leader’s actions run contrary to the spirit of Mr. Chong’s bill. When Mr. Trudeau informed the Senators of his decision, maybe at least one of them thought (and perhaps said): who are you to tell me I’m not a Liberal? And how could this kind of change be made unilaterally? Shouldn’t caucus members have some say in who sits among them? Mr. Trudeau might end up answering some of these questions in future caucus meetings, press conferences, and on the campaign trail.
One thing that the Liberal and Conservative leaders seem to agree on is that Canadians don’t want to fix the Constitution. Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper seem confident that Canadians have no tolerance for constitutional negotiations, but want instead to fix the “broken” Senate through less formal measures that do not require approval via the demanding amending formula.
While no one wants to relive Meech Lake, perhaps our leaders shouldn’t be so quick to count us out as constitutional players. There is now a wealth of suggestions, from political parties and from organizations like Preston Manning’s, on whether and how to proceed with Senate reform. We await the Supreme Court’s opinion on the subject. Is informal change, outside of the Constitution, really the right and desired course of action? Or are we at a point where we are able to admit that the Senate’s not the only thing that’s broken?
Lori Turnbull is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University.